A Product Owner Must Master Themselves
A product owner or product manager requires more than just great knowledge of the product they are intending to build. They require more than knowledge of the market they are intending to launch it in. They require more than an understanding of their customers and their users. They even require more than a great relationship with the team of people building the product.
Being a great product owner requires all of the above and something else. Something perhaps even harder than all of those things…an understanding and mastery of yourself. A product owner is, after all, only human and during my coaching I have found that we all have a number of traits that can either be used to our advantage or have the effect of holding us back.
I have written a book about the 12 most common traits that can trap us and I would like to explore a couple of these traits in the context of the product owner. Each of these traits can be helpful to us when we hold them in balance but, if underdone or overdone, then they can trap us and impede both our effectiveness and our happiness.
I have written about Impostor Syndrome in the context of the ScrumMaster but it is equally challenging for a product owner. You may be suffering from Impostor syndrome if you believe:
- You are a fraud, that you are faking it and that one day soon, you will be “found out”
- That everyone else knows more than you do
- The faith that others have in your ability is misplaced
- That you aren’t as good as they seem to believe you are
- That your successes are largely down to luck, being in the right place at the right time or because of other people
A product owner experiencing overdone Impostor Syndrome will be forever doubting their ability and authority to make decisions on the feature makeup of the product and the prioritisation. There is an upside to overdone Impostor Syndrome though as these people tend to use their insecurity as a driver and by constantly trying to prove themselves and never being comfortable with what they have achieved, these people often tend to be high achievers.
Someone with significantly underdone impostor syndrome is usually experiencing Dunning-Kruger Syndrome and is therefore of the mindset that “I am the expert and don’t need to listen to anyone else”. These people find it very difficult to collaborate in a team environment and learn from feedback compromising the quality of the product that is created.
The white knight syndrome is another common characteristic of the successful ScrumMaster as they are more susceptible to judging their success by how much or how well they help others. This is arguably part of their job description but product owners who find an overwhelming need to please others will often find themselves reacting to every piece of feedback and perhaps even avoid asking for feedback for fear of hearing something negative or disappointing people.
Obviously not paying any attention to how others are feeling and whether they are happy or not is not a great trait for a product owner either as customer satisfaction is our ultimate goal and a positive relationship with the development team and stakeholders is an essential part of us achieving that. I have known a few product owners who have operated on the premise that “I can’t please everyone so I’m not going to try” and end up just building a product that they like themselves.
The third trait that I want to look at is perfectionism and this is perhaps the trickiest trait for a product owner to keep in balance, but arguably the most important. Obviously we can’t launch just anything regardless of functional completeness or quality so an underdone perfectionist trait – where anything will do – is unlikely to be helpful to us.
However a product owner cannot afford to be overly perfectionist either. Product owners whose perfectionist trait is overdone find themselves waiting for the perfect conditions before they start (which never exist) or they wait until the product is perfect before they launch it (which will almost certainly be too late). This high bar that they set helps them achieve great things – indeed nothing of greatness was achieved by settling for mediocrity – but not only can it lead to personal unhappiness, it can also lead to low morale in the people you work with.
By setting the bar almost unachievably high and perfection being almost always impossible to achieve, if you are only going to be happy once you achieve 100% then you’re almost destined to be unhappy. Your own unrelenting standards and unwillingness to settle for anything less can be very intimidating and create an environment that stifles creativity as people are unwilling to share half-baked ideas. Perfect is often unachievable and so aiming for it is almost a recipe for disappointment. Aiming for excellence is a great, sustainable alternative.
So what can you do as a Product Owner?
If you find yourself identifying with any of these traits the good news is that they can become your strengths and you can do some simple things to start bringing them back into balance.
- For Impostor Syndrome try thinking about yourself from somebody else’s point of view. What would someone else say about you, your achievements and your abilities. Sometimes it is easier to be fairer to ourselves when looking through someone else’s eyes.
- For People Pleasing, practice being assertive without being overbearing. Take some non-critical situations, try being assertive with someone you trust and then ask for feedback on how your behaviour came across. Refine your behaviour based on the feedback and practice again.
- For Perfectionism, try creating a virtual “inner boardroom” that contains a group of people whose opinions you respect and whom you can consult when you feel you need them. Ensure that you have a place on your “board” for someone who has a very strong perfectionist trait and somebody who is more of a “that’s good enough, now let’s move on” kind of person. You could also check out my TEDx talk on Balancing Perfectionism To Be Creative.
There are many ways that you can address your traits that are out of balance and my work with product owners involves looking at more than just these three. You can get a better insight by reading my book The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering The 12 Traits That Trap Us or, if you would like to explore 121 coaching then get in touch. I also have a one-day workshop on Leadership Skills for Product Managers coming up that I will be co-teaching with the great Roman Pichler soon.